In our final feature celebrating Yorkshire mothers, Sarah Freeman meets Pamela Arundel Clarke, an 86-year-old whose diary would exhaust someone half her age.
When Pamela Arundel Clarke was told almost 25 years ago that she was in remission from cancer she made a promise to herself and her family. From that day on, she said, she would never again waste a minute of her life.
It had been touch and go for a while. At one point doctors had given her only three months to live, but Pamela, who had previously survived throat cancer hadn’t read the script. Despite the odds stacked against her, the cancer in her stomach was successfully treated and Pamela came out the other side with renewed determination.
Truth was, there hadn’t been many wasted hours even before the cancer. As well as raising her two daughters with her husband Bruce, Pamela had always been active in Ilkley where she was born, bred and still lives today. She’d been part of the girl guiding movement since the 1930s, helped found the town’s first playgroup and later became a stalwart of Ilkley Swimming Club, teaching youngsters there for 20 years. Even so she felt there was more she could do.
Pamela is now 86 and while she doesn’t necessarily see it herself, she is an inspiration. She still works five days a week at her local Tesco, has recently been involved in raising £300,000 for a new scout hut and is almost single handedly responsible for making the costumes for each new production of Ilkley Amateur Operatic Society. So busy is she that a brand new computer she and Bruce, who is now registered blind, bought eight years ago hasn’t yet made it out of the box it came in. She simply hasn’t had time to set it up.
“It’s all about computers these days and I know I must learn. It’s on my to do list,” she says. “I do fear that if we don’t get online we will get left behind.”
There’s little chance of that. Pamela has always been up for a challenge - four years ago she went on her first zip wire - and says she inherited her enthusiasm for life from her mother.
“She was born in 1898 and died in 2000 and she was quite an incredible woman,” she says. “She was a teenager when the First World War broke out and she always said that it had been a really influential period to live through. For women like my mum, I think growing up during the Great War, meant that they learnt early on that it was important to be useful.
“There was so much that communities had to do and with most of the men away fighting women suddenly took on a lot more responsibility than they had ever had before. In many ways they also had a lot more freedom than their own mothers had enjoyed. Women were no longer confined to the home, they went out to work and determined the path their lives took.
“That changed people and when I was growing up there was a definite sense that we had a part to play in the wider community.”
From an early age, Pamela became involved with the 2nd Ilkley Girl Guides brigade and the organisation has continued to be a mainstay of her life. When she and Bruce adopted their two girls, Deborah and Katherine, they also followed in her mother’s footsteps and Pamela believes that far from being an out-dated or old fashioned organisation, it has never been more relevant.
“Of course the world moves on, but I learnt a lot of lessons by being in the guides. I definitely think it creates a streak of independence in young girls and it’s a valuable lesson in being part of a team and leadership. There is real discipline to being in the guides and it definitely teaches you how to take and give orders.”
In fact the only thing, Pamela would like to change about the movement, is its age restrictions.
“In this country you have to step down as a unit leader when you’re 65. It’s a bit of an outdated rule really. These days I don’t think many people think of being in your 60s as old. It hasn’t stopped me being involved though, it’s still very much part of my life.” Like many people of her generation, Pamela married young. She was just 21-years-old when she walked down the aisle with Bruce before getting in the sidecar of his motorbike for a honeymoon on the Isle of White.
“There wasn’t much room for luggage, but that was ok, because back then we didn’t have much, no one did. Bruce and I always travelled light.”
Now with four grandchildren aged between 17 and 20, Pamela has seen an awful lot of change since she was their age. And yet, she’s not one for wallowing in misplaced nostalgia and her focus is very much on the future. Having recently been presented with the Tesco Mum of the Year lifetime achievement award, Pamela claims that she is now thinking of retiring from the supermarket where she deals with external suppliers. However, it’s not an entirely convincing pitch.
“I think I’ll probably give up in July, possibly August although September might be good as that would be just before my 87th birthday,” she says. “I’ve loved my job and I definitely think being with young people helps you stay young, but everyone has to retire at some point don’t they?”
If Pamela does give up the day job there will still be plenty to do. She recently postponed knee replacement surgery so she could finish making the costumes for Ilkley Amateur Operatic Society’s production of The Wizard of Oz. It was no mean feat given that aside from Dorothy, the Lion, Tin Man and Scarecrow, there were also 17 munchkins who needed to be kitted out and she’s already thinking about the autumn show which will be Bugsy Malone.
“Forty years ago the girls got involved in the company and one of them said ‘my mummy can sew’. That was it. I’ve been their resident seamstress ever since. I’ve always had a good eye for colour and I do get a lot of pleasure of seeing the finished result.
“When there’s a big production looming it often means staying up until 2am, but I don’t mind, I’d rather it was done right. When a show’s on I spend most of my time underneath the stage fixing hooks and eyes and doing any urgent repairs. It’s always fairly hectic, not that you’d know it, if you were sat in the audience.
“I’ve never been one for sitting doing nothing. Even if I’m watching television I’ll probably be crocheting and I’d really like to learn lacemaking.”
And while Pamela isn’t prone to looking back, having been presented with the Tesco award at a ceremony in London’s Savoy Hotel before she and Bruce were whisked off to Downing Street for a meet and greet with House of Commons speaker John Bercow, there has been cause for a little reflection in the Clarke household.
“Honestly, you wouldn’t recognise Ilkley from when Bruce and I was growing up,” she says. “It almost felt like a village then. Not now. People don’t know each other the way they used to and sometimes you get a sense that people move here to forget their past. I wouldn’t want to wind back the clock for many things, but that feeling of community spirit is one thing I do miss.”